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In artsy Wynwood, Miami Rescue Mission expands with cheap-chic dorm for homeless men

By sheer necessity, the people who have run the Miami Rescue Mission in its 90 years of existence grew adept at squeezing a dollar to feed, house and rehabilitate innumerable homeless men, women and children.

More recently, they have developed something else as well: a knack for integrating inexpensive but distinctive design into its facilities as it gradually expands to meet the needs of its growing clientele.

The newest exhibit is an old warehouse behind the mission’s men’s center in Wynwood that’s being fully retrofitted to sleep 78 men in a dorm-like setting, complete with private lockers, study lounges and an auditorium with exposed rafters. Over the building front will go a swoopy canopy, and over the front door a MiMo-style half-moon eyebrow on which will stand letters spelling out the institution’s name in blue.

The new center, now under construction, was designed in efficient, simple-cool style by Miami architect Kobi Karp, best known for glitzy condo towers and hotels here and abroad, and it’s being built out by contractor and South Beach events promoter Michael Capponi, a longtime Rescue Mission supporter. Karp, Capponi and his subcontractors are all working for cost.

The Rev. Ron Brummitt, the Rescue Mission president, says the homeless deserve appealing surroundings as much as anyone else. The new building will be reserved for men enrolled in the mission’s transitional program, which has enjoyed a high rate of success setting homeless people on a path to jobs, homes and new lives through treatment, education and training.

“The main thing is, that building will give us extended ability to care for the homeless,’’ Brummitt said. “But we’re trying to modernize the space so it’s not sardine-ish, to make it comfortable. It will be a nice respite for these men.’’

Brummitt credits Capponi for undertaking the job and corralling Karp and a series of subs to work at a substantial discount.

“I couldn’t afford Kobi Karp,’’ Brummitt said with a laugh. “This man is known internationally.’’

The men’s dorm expansion comes 10 years after the Rescue Mission, which relies mostly on private donations, inaugurated its cornerstone community center, which features a stunning, natural-light basketball court and a soaring, multi-hued lobby. The community center was designed, also using low-cost, durable materials, by architect Marilyn Avery and the late William Lam, a famed pioneer in the field of architectural lighting design who was also responsible for the lighting of the Washington, D.C., Metro.

It has since become the site of the Miami Heat’s annual Thanksgiving giveaway, as well as after-school programs and sports leagues for kids from the surrounding neighborhoods, which include Wynwood and Overtown. On Wednesday, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and their teammates handed out turkeys to local families at the center.

The expansion, which should be done in January, also coincides with the fast-moving transformation of the Wynwood warehouse district around the mission into a hip arts and entertainment magnet defined by a plethora of graffiti-art murals. When the mission moved into the neighborhood after relocating from downtown Miami in the 1980s, though, it was a desolate area of shuttered warehouses and vacant lots. The Rescue Mission built a new multi-story men’s center in 1989 at 2159 NW First Court, and also runs a shelter for women and children and a thrift store up the block.

Although the mission and the burgeoning hipster district may seem a jarring juxtaposition, Capponi, the contractor and volunteer, said the gentrification is good for the institution’s residents and graduates, providing a new source of jobs in restaurants and shops as well as fewer traps to fall into as the area’s crime and drug trafficking dwindle.

“It all starts to come together,’’ Capponi said. “Before, that neighborhood was isolated. Now, you walk one block over and you’re in Wynwood. Pretty soon, that’s going to be a happening place and integration will be very important.

“The reason I really like the Rescue Mission program is that, if you check in here for a year and a half, you will get a new shot at life. Do you think it would be healthier for you where there is functioning society a block away, or a bunch of crackheads standing on the corner?’’

Acquisition of the warehouse was the result of a combination need and sudden opportunity, Brummitt said. After the economic recession, demand for services increased sharply. But post-recession, so did real-estate prices in the hot neighborhood, limiting prospects for expansion.

At the existing men’s center, Brummitt said, “we were getting overrun.’’ So when a 10,000-square-foot warehouse behind the building went up for sale, the mission jumped, dipping into reserves to purchase it for $1 million. The mission also won a $1 million federal grant to help cover the cost of renovation, which Brummitt estimates at $1.6 million. He is still out raising funds with the goal of covering the gap and $800,000 for two years of operating costs.

“It was a great opportunity,’’ he said. “There are big players out here buying up property. We got a pretty doggone good deal for that area. It was a win-win situation for us and the community.’’

Brummitt then turned to Capponi, who had become a big supporter after overcoming his own bout of drug abuse and homelessness, and who now helps organize an annual Thanksgiving feast that feeds 2,5000 people as well as other holiday events at the mission. Capponi also recently helped the mission, which also runs centers in Broward County, build out a new health clinic.

The warehouse had a new roof, but it required structural reinforcement to hold air-conditioning equipment. The building also had to be tied into the city sewer system, and needed new doors and hurricane windows, not to mention interior walls, bathrooms and insulation.

“It was nothing, just a concrete shell,’’ Capponi said.

But he wanted to keep costs down, so he asked Karp, a friend, and a group of subs who routinely work on his jobs, typically mansions and luxury housing, to work cheap.

“We give them a lot of business and we leveraged that,” Capponi said. “This job is definitely subsidized by giving them a lot of work all year round.

“This is straight from the heart. If I had more money I would have paid for it. We want to make the mission is a bigger place to serve more people, and we do what we can.’’